• The latest Home Office statistics show that over 62,000 people were granted refugee status or other protection in 2023 but that more than 95,000 were still awaiting an initial decision while hundreds more people have crossed the Channel in small boats and a child has died in a failed attempt.
  • The House of Lords has voted for several important changes to the government’s Rwanda Bill and the National Audit Office has revealed that the UK will pay at least £370 million to Rwanda to relocate asylum seekers to the country.
  • The UK has agreed to work with Belgium, France Germany and the Netherlands to try to disrupt the supply of small boats that are used to transport migrants across the Channel
  • The minister for “Illegal” migration has travelled to Libya for discussions with the National Unity government about possible migration co-operation.

On 29 February, the UK government published its latest immigration statistics. They reveal that over 67,000 applications for asylum (relating to over 84,000 people) were made in 2023 and that over 62,000 people were granted refugee status or other protection – the highest number since records began in 1984. They also revealed that more than 95,000 asylum cases were still awaiting an initial decision at the end of December 2023. In a thread on X in response to the publication of the latest statistics, ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council wrote: “It is crystal clear the vast majority of men, women and children coming here in search of safety are people escaping conflict, torture and persecution – including Afghanistan, Syria and Iran.” Commenting on the backlog, they said: “Govt’s unworkable and unprincipled Illegal Migration Act and Rwanda plan are creating a new ‘perma-backlog’ of thousands of additional cases that cannot be processed. In other words, tens of thousands of people being forced to wait and wait, unable to get on with their lives while being at high at risk of destitution and abuse.” The government statistics also showed that 24,000 asylum applications (relating to more than 25,000 people) had been withdrawn in 2023 (up from 5255 withdrawn applications relating to 5944 people in 2022) and that almost 80% of them had been classed as “implicit withdrawals” meaning that “the Home Office chose to withdraw the application rather than the applicant withdrawing it themselves.” The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said: “Withdrawals should never be used as a way to reduce the backlog and should only be employed in certain, very specific circumstances” and his organisation X posted: “Government must NEVER withdraw a claim in an attempt to clear the backlog – each asylum claim must be considered on its individual merit.”

According to the Home Office, 327 migrants arrived in Dover on 3 March. The latest arrivals brought the total number of people who had crossed the Channel in small boats since the start of 2024 to 2582. However, this total was quickly surpassed as another 401 people arrived on 4 March (Total: 2983) – the highest daily number so far in 2024. Unfortunately, not everyone who tried to cross the Channel in March survived. On 2 March, a seven-year-old girl died when the boat that she was travelling in capsized in a canal in Watten, approximately 30 km inland from Dunkirk. According to French officials, the boat was carrying 16 people, including the child’s parents and three siblings who were taken to hospital. “So young. Yet another tragic loss of life. Time and time again we see the same stories, and the same reactions. We need more than just words though. Governments need to implement policies of protection to ensure people can reach safety safely,” the NGO Migrant Voice wrote on X.

According to the Guardian and Liberty Investigates, children were left adrift on boats in the Channel days before an incident that resulted in the deaths of at least 27 people in November 2021. The two organisations have revealed details of coastguard logs that appear to show that in at least nine incidents “no attempt to establish the safety of small boats containing children is recorded after calls for help”. They claim that “maritime search-and-rescue experts” who reviewed the logs said that they “raised serious questions over the government’s under-resourcing of rescue agencies despite the ramping up of the Channel crisis in the preceding years”. It adds that the logs indicate that in two of the documented incidents, there was “no evidence of a rescue being launched even after the boats were spotted by helicopter or drone – including one reported to contain five children.” The former children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has called for a “full investigation into the search-and-rescue response to small boat crossings and the safeguarding of children”. In a separate incident relating to child welfare, several organisations, including ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council and Safe Passage International, have co-signed a letter in which they call for the government to undertake a “wide-ranging independent inquiry into the treatment of unaccompanied children who come to our country seeking safety”. The signatories also highlighted the urgent need for a “fundamental change towards an asylum system that is fair, humane and protects those who are some of the most vulnerable children in the country, an asylum system that sees refugee children as children who need loving care and support”. The letter was written partly in response to revelations included in one of the 13 recently published reports from the independent borders inspectorate that “staff made unaccompanied asylum-seeking children play a game in which they had to guess who would be the next one to be placed in foster care”. The Home Office has since launched an enquiry into the situation in several hotels in which asylum seekers are being housed following the shocking evidence that was uncovered by inspectors and included in the delayed reports, including that between July 2021 and September 2023, “147 children had left the hotels without supervision and remained unaccounted for”. The author of the reports, former chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, was sacked in late February for “breaching his contract after speaking to the Daily Mail about concerns over airport security”, according to a Home Office statement. Neal told MPs from the Home Affairs Select Committee that he had been sacked for “doing my job”. “I think I’ve been sacked for doing what the law asks of me and I’ve breached, I’ve fallen down over a clause in my employment contract, which I think is a crying shame,” he said. Several NGOs, including the Refugee Council, have written to Home Secretary James Cleverly to express their concern at Neal’s sacking and its potential impact on the asylum system.

The government has suffered a series of defeats in the latest stage of the process to get its controversial Rwanda bill passed by parliament. On 4 March, members of the House of Lords passed five amendments to the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ bill which, if maintained, would make it easier for judges to challenge the bill’s premise that Rwanda is a safe country to which asylum seekers can be sent. On 6 March, they passed five more amendments, including on allowing courts to “question the safety of the East African nation”. When the House of Lords has finished scrutinising the bill, it will return to the House of Commons where it is expected that the 10 amendments will be overturned, possibly later in March. In an opinion piece published in the Guardian, Enver Solomon wrote: “Indeed, the idea that Rwanda will achieve any serious deterrent effect is an unfounded and ideological position. Instead, it will cause more human misery and there will be more deaths in the Channel.” Meanwhile, the National Audit Office (NAO) has revealed that the UK will pay at least £370 million to Rwanda to relocate asylum seekers to the country. The NAO’s ‘Investigation into the costs of the UK-Rwanda Partnership’ report has shown that the UK has already paid £220m since April 2022 and annual payments of £50m are due to be made for the next three years. It also showed that the UK would make an additional one-off payment of £120m once 300 people had been sent to Rwanda, and further payments of £20,000 per “relocated” person. In addition, the UK would pay up to £151,000 per person to cover “asylum processing and operational costs”. If any asylum seekers who had been sent to Rwanda were to decide to leave the country, the UK would pay £10,000 to “help facilitate their voluntary departure”. All of these costs are on top of the estimated £20m “direct costs in setting up and operating the partnership” (possibly rising to £28m) and the £11,000 per individual flight from the UK to Rwanda. Commenting on the estimated £1.8m per person cost of the Rwanda scheme, Dr Emilie McDonnell from Human Rights Watch wrote on X: “Instead of steamrolling ahead with this cruel, costly & unlawful scheme, the UK should invest in creating a fair and humane asylum system that is fit for purpose.” The Independent newspaper quipped: “Cruelty has rarely been so lavishly funded”. Also, UN experts in a statement released on 1 March expressed “concern” that “the “Safety of Rwanda” Bill under consideration in the United Kingdom may violate the principle of non-refoulement, and may not provide for effective access to asylum, without discrimination, or a fair and proper consideration of asylum claims.” “We are particularly concerned about the impact of the bill on the rights of individual asylum-seekers – including potential victims of trafficking – to an effective remedy, as recognised under international human rights law, to challenge the third country’s determination of safety and to be protected against refoulement, including through effective access to the courts,” they said. The UN experts urged the British government to review the Rwanda bill and ensure that it is in line with the UK’s international human rights obligations.

A group of northern European countries has agreed to increase their co-operation aimed at disrupting the supply of small boats that are used to carry migrants across the Channel. Following the latest meeting of the so-called “Calais Group”, which brings together Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK as well as the European Commission and various EU agencies, on 4 March in Brussels, the UK government issued a joint ministerial statement which described the aim of the 1 February ‘UK/France Partnership for Customs Issues’ as “improving information sharing between respective agencies, providing a framework for international partners to increase disruptions of the small boat supply chain, demonstrating the continuing commitment of all participants to break the model of the organised crime groups that facilitate these life-threatening journeys.” The Home Office also said in a statement: “This is an initiative to work with countries throughout the supply chain of small boat materials, and will build on the effective work already being done to prevent small boat launches from northern France”. “Partnership countries and their customs agencies will… be able to share information more effectively to disrupt shipments of small boat materials, preventing them from making it to the English Channel,” it added. John Featonby from the Refugee Council decried the lack of attention given to the issue of safe and legal routes to the UK. “In the statement from the meeting, there is absolutely nothing about ensuring access to protection or creating safe routes,” he wrote on X. Elsewhere, the UK may also be looking to increase its co-operation with Libya on migration. According to the National, the UK and Libya “vowed to boost co-operation and strengthen joint operations to counter the irregular migration influx towards Europe” and it reported that the Libyan Prime Minister of the Tripoli-based National Unity government told the UK Minister for Illegal Migration during the latter’s official visit to Libya on 4 March that his government appreciated the UK’s “willingness to offer its support to Libya”.

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